Checkland's attack exposes BBC splits

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The Independent Online
SIR MICHAEL CHECKLAND, outgoing director general of the BBC, said yesterday that his chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, was too old at 69 to lead the BBC and that the Government had been wrong to reappoint Mr Hussey last year for a second five-year term. 'It is bizarre,' he said.

The criticism was unprecedented, and within four hours Sir Michael apologised. The BBC press office issued a statement: 'It was certainly not my intention to make a personal attack. I apologised to the chairman and expressed my regret if it was seen as that.'

Sir Michael then flew to Botswana for a Commonwealth broadcasting conference. A spokesman said he would not be leaving the BBC before his contract expires in February.

His comments, before an audience of Britain's most senior broadcasters, many from the BBC, had astonished and delighted them. Many broke out into spontaneous applause. Marmaduke Hussey, who was at Broadcasting House yesterday afternoon, refused to comment.

Sir Michael told the conference: 'It is a mistake to have a chairman of this organisation for 10 years. That is a mistake when you are leading the BBC into the next century, at the age of 73 (Mr Hussey's age when his 10-year stint runs out in 1996, the year of the corporation's charter renewal).

The outburst will draw renewed attention to Mr Hussey's performance at the corporation. The Government is thought to be seeking an experienced deputy chairman, perhaps a businessman, to replace Lord Barnett next year. But it also raises the question of whether the two men can continue to work together, and points to the deep divisions in the organisation.

Sir Michael's remarks were made at the Royal Television Society's symposium held in London on the future of broadcasting. He was critical of the way the governors had selected his replacement, John Birt, without a proper interview procedure, or consideration of outside candidates. At the same time Sir Michael had his contract extended for only one year.

'It was an absurd position to place me in. A handover of 21 months is a most ludicrous way to operate,' he said yesterday.

Mr Birt, who was in the audience, was asked to comment about Mr Hussey. He said: 'Forgive me if I don't reply so


Sir Michael told reporters afterwards that the BBC's 12 governors were too old and unrepresentative. 'My children only listen to radio on FM,' he said - a pointed reference to the way the governors reacted last week to the campaign to keep Radio 4 on long wave instead of moving it to FM to make way for a 24-hour news service.

He said the governors, five of whom come up for replacement next year, should draw from a wider age group and contain people 'who listen to radio on FM and have a satellite dish'.